Story #1: This past week, Caterpillar – after recording record profits and benefiting from Canadian government tax breaks – closed up shop in London, Ontario. The company had been planning to do this for months. It was just waiting for Indiana to pass legislation to become a “right-to-work” state before sending the jobs there. This past week, Indiana lawmakers complied.
In the meantime, Caterpillar engaged in bad faith negotiations with the Canadian Auto Workers union in Canada, demanding that workers accept a 50% wage cut. When workers, not surprisingly, said no thanks, Caterpillar then tried to lay the blame for closing the plant and moving the jobs. So what does “right to work” mean? Sounds good, yes? No.
A “Right-to-work” law is a statute that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership, payment of union dues, or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. – Wikipedia
In other words, you don’t have to join the union or pay union dues even if you’re hired by an employer where a union exists. And even if you’re doing the same job as unionized workers. In Canada, this can’t happen thanks to the Rand formula, a process which requires anyone working within a union’s jurisdiction to pay union dues. This means no free riders, nobody benefiting from collective bargaining without contributing.
There are now 23 right-to-work states in the U.S. with the passing of Indiana’s legislation. Workers employed in those states make less money and are less likely to have other benefits such as health care than workers in non-right-to-work states, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute. And 6 of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates have right-to-work laws on their books.
Now Caterpillar can pay workers in Indiana considerably less (hourly wages of $10-$14 an hour). And it won’t have to be annoyed by a union demanding fair treatment so that workers can live above the poverty line. Indiana becomes the first state in ten years to enact a new right-to-work law, according to the Huffington Post. Proponents argue that the law helps foster a pro-business atmosphere. In other words, more money for the 1%, less for everyone else.
Story #2: Workers in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald newsroom voted overwhelmingly yesterday in favour of strike action. The Herald is the largest daily newspaper in Nova Scotia. Members of the Halifax Typographical Union voted 96% to strike if their negotiators can’t reach an acceptable settlement. They’ve been without a contract since last November.
So what’s the issue? The company wants to cut starting salaries for reporters and photographers by $12,000. So new employees would effectively become second-class citizens.
Newspaper readership, incidentally, is actually up in Canada – both in print and online. And some papers have recorded significant profits. Maybe not as much as they used to, but profits nonetheless. At a recent forum, top newspaper publishers painted a rosy picture of the industry, expressing confidence that rumours of the death of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated. I don’t know if that’s the case for the Chronicle-Herald. I couldn’t find any public info about their bottom line. Nonetheless, the proposed wage cut seems at odds with the paper’s “Brand Values” published on their website:
Our colleagues built the Chronicle Herald and helped create our success. We deeply value the role each person has played in our history and will play in our future success… Communities are our lifeblood. We live here and serve by understanding our communities’ information needs, providing them with the best product possible and by giving back.
Story 3: I spent this past weekend at a planning meeting of my union’s national executive and staff.
At one point during a small group discussion, one of the new board members expressed a need for help in how to respond to friends who engage in the popular sport of union-bashing. She said her friends expected her to have all the answers as the only “union person” in the group. That it was uncomfortable, that she didn’t want to be in that position. That it was hard being a union person. We talked about creating talking points and providing her with support materials. We branched out into brainstorming ideas about how to shift negative public opinion.
But really, why is so hard to understand? How did the myth of “unions = evil” become so entrenched? Why is it so hard to explain that unions have provided all workers – unionized or not – with a better standard of living? With fair treatment. Time off to spend with family. Safe working conditions. A living wage. Laws against child labour. The ability to educate our children for the future. Decent pensions so we can enjoy our later years in a measure of comfort and dignity.
The labour movement has failed miserably in combating the anti-union message of big business and the political right. We have a lot of work to do if we want to prevent more Caterpillars who made no bones about the fact that they just didn’t care – about their workers, about bad press, about protests.
So what could we say? Unions mean we don’t have to work in places such as China’s FoxConn. Without them? More FoxConns, I expect. And where better to begin the first steps than in those right to work states? Maybe not to the same degree, at least not right away. But without unions to get in the way, well, there wouldn’t be much to stop them, would there? And it wouldn’t be long before Stephen Harper wanted in, bringing the same to Canada. And then there’d be no reason to move jobs away.
- Union, politicians blast Caterpillar’s decision to close London plant (windsorstar.com)
- Electro-Motive picketing continues despite closure (cbc.ca)
- Closure of Caterpillar plant signals change for Canadian manufacturing (vancouversun.com)
- Quinn: Indiana’s Push For ‘Right To Work’ Law Won’t Hurt Illinois (chicago.cbslocal.com)
- Community reaction to Caterpillar’s London plant shutdown (cbc.ca)
- Manufacturing faces bleak future as Caterpillar plant closes down (theglobeandmail.com)